CHICAGO — Are the Washington Wizards a true contender?
They’ve turned heads with their 2-0 start against the Chicago Bulls in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs, seemingly unfazed by their underdog status.
Despite the extreme youth of their integral backcourt, the fifth-seeded Wizards paced through two road victories in Chicago with the calm moxie of a squad that has been here before.
John Wall and Bradley Beal (23 and 20 years old, respectively) approached the all-shining postseason podium after a 101-99 Game 2 overtime victory. Wearing their spring best, the two playoff virgins cracked small smiles before stoning up and deflecting compliments about their play from the media.
“I just stay with it,” Beal said about his fourth-quarter surge. “It was a team effort, though. I can’t take credit for the fourth quarter.”
He also downplayed a scuffle with dogged veteran guard Kirk Hinrich. “It was nothing crazy,” Beal said. “Just us getting tangled up and getting rattled. ... He’s a smart player, but I wasn’t going to fall into the trap.”
Beal’s sober take on the altercation reveals how Washington’s not only stayed in this series, but taken control of it.
At the midpoint of Game 1’s third quarter, the Wizards looked all but dead. They were down 64-51 after a reverse layup from Hinrich, and the Bulls seemed to be finding Washington’s cracks with their relentless strong-side coverage.
Well known for its pressing defensive style, Chicago has broken many teams this way before.
That’s when Nene took over. The Wizards’ oft-forgotten Brazilian big man has paired with “Polish Hammer” Marcin Gortat for one of the league’s most unique, overlooked frontcourts and a thunderous complement to the lightning speed of Wall and Beal.
Nene repeatedly backed his giant shoulders to the chest of Defensive Player of the Year recipient Joakim Noah, spinning quickly to the rim or backing away for smooth jumpers to the tune of 24 points on 11-of-17 shooting.
His offense led his team to a 102-93 win, and he was also a force defensively, consistently stymieing Noah and Taj Gibson with on-ball irritation that won’t show up in the box score. He carved up the indomitable Chicago interior.
“I'm really happy to help my team,” he said after the game, a lyrical delight running through his thick accent. “We believe in each other and trust each other. The sky is the limit; I think what we can do will surprise a lot of teams if we play the right way.”
Watching the Wizards take over games against these steely Chicago veterans begs one question above all: How didn’t we see them coming?
Perhaps Wall and Beal are so young that the league didn’t think they were ready, and maybe Nene’s consistently problematic health—he's missed 77 games over the past three seasons—has inspired skepticism.
The NBA’s been put on notice, though.
The Wizards feel they belong in the contender conversation regardless of how they’ve been perceived. Washington’s lengthy basketball slump (it hasn't won a playoff series since 2005) is an afterthought to the team. It boasts far more confidence than insecurity, and a sense of the now.
The players are together too. Wall and Beal sprinted at each other to bop bellies proudly after Game 2’s close, and Wall and Nene could be seen laughing a mile a minute with their arms around each other on the way to the locker room.
Gortat and Nene’s relationship is something else entirely. “He is my soulmate,” Nene jokingly said of Gortat in a midseason interview with The Washington Post.
Their mutual fondness is manifested on the court as well, where their interior passing intuitively dices the paint and they stay on a colossal defensive string together.
Credit the frequently maligned Randy Wittman for some of this cultural cohesion. His straight, ego-free approach to his team makes him the right coach for the Wizards, despite his surface-level lack of X's-and-O's wisdom.
Like Scott Brooks with the Oklahoma City Thunder—another favorite whipping boy—Wittman’s steady voice empowers his young, newly assembled team in a way that’s invaluable to its success.
“I'm not worried about that,” Wittman said, when asked about Wall and Beal’s substandard 7-of-25 shooting performance in Game 1. “If you're taking the right shots I never worry—make or miss.” In Game 2, Wittman's affable esteem in his youngsters paid off—the two combined for 42 points.
Don’t be shocked if this isn’t the last column you read about the Washington Wizards’ emergence into the mainstream fray of NBA fighters.
When we see them square off against the Bulls at home tonight (Friday, April 25, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN), we'll be watching to see if they're here to stay.
The Wizards will have to maintain their composure and selflessness to prove themselves as solidified contenders. As long as they keep the reins on their talent, there's more than enough of it to advance beyond Chicago, and possibly even further.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.